Why Communal Roosts Are Vital for Bald Eagles

Eagles roosting in a tree. (Photo: Pacific Southwest Region USFWS [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

The bald eagle is more than a symbol of America — it's also a symbol of one of the nation's greatest conservation success stories.

As MNN's Jaymi Heimbuch explains, the species' journey "is a familiar story across a nation where pollution and pesticides nearly wiped out the species in the United States. The bald eagle was on the endangered species list for decades, and massive recovery efforts were put into place to bring the national symbol back."

Thankfully, all that hard work has paid off for the bald eagle, which was removed from the Endangered Species list in 2007. Of course, the struggle for the environment never truly ends, which is why the majestic raptor still remains under the protection of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty and the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the act "prohibits anyone from taking, possessing, or transporting a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) or golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), or the parts, nests, or eggs of such birds without prior authorization. This includes inactive nests as well as active nests. 'Take' means to pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, destroy, molest, or disturb."

What's also interesting about this is that although it isn't explicitly stated, this protection of "nests" also extends to any trees that serve as communal winter roosts — like the one pictured above.

'Carol! You would not believe the gossip I heard on the other side of the roost!'. (Photo: jo Crebbin/Shutterstock)

As the USFWS explains in a blog, "Communal roosts are usually in large living or dead trees that are relatively sheltered from wind and generally near sources of food. Many roost sites are used year after year and are thought to serve a social purpose for pair bonding and communication among eagles."

In fact, some roosts can be a party scene. In 2012, Seattle-based photographer Chuck Hilliard spotted a whopping 55 eagles roosting on this tree near the Nooksack River in Washington.

At the time the photo was taken, the river was experiencing the annual salmon run, which is probably why so many eagles were hanging out in the area. According to Hilliard, listening to and observing the flock's group dynamics was one of the most fascinating aspects of the experience.

"As a wildlife photographer, when I watch family groups interact, it is easy to see human-like behavior between them. Eagles are no different," Hilliard tells the USFWS, "but this was the first time I have witnessed a more neighborhood watch mentality. I will never forget the amount of sound and chatter from such a large group."

You can see more of Hilliard's photos from the 2011-2012 winter season in his incredible Facebook photo album.